Thursday, September 30, 2010

Futurama: Season 6 review (thus far) **Warning: Spoilers**

Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of Futurama so some (read: most) of this will come off as cheerleading.
Futurama hit the airwaves as Matt Groening grew frustrated with his first creation, The Simpsons. As he gradually saw the Simpsons change into sitcom fare, he realized that he needed an outlet for his more philosophical, goofy bent.

Nearly from the beginning, Fox decided “Hey, let’s treat Matt’s show like garbage and see what happens.” So the show got shifted around like those cards you see street hustlers play around with. Eventually this mixed with the stranger nature of the show itself (which employed a great deal of Sci-Fi) lead to its cancellation.
But like a vampire, it lived in the undead realm of Cartoon Network re-runs. These proved to be effective once the show rose from the dead, like Family Guy did once college students bought the DVDs and watched them over and over. Cult-like followings of the show also came from various Sci-Fi aficionados who enjoyed the extremely nerdy humor employed.

When I first heard about the re-birth of the show, I was worried. Remembering how the Family Guy franchise suffered hard, I thought the same might occur with Futurama. Jokes that I originally thought funny with Family Guy felt stale upon watching the new episodes, like the show had plagiarized itself, if such a thing is in fact possible.

The movies didn’t help. Futurama worked best when it had certain restraints, so a full length movie sort of diluted what might have been strong singular episodes. Fans expressed disappointment at most of these, so I won’t go into it here. I’ll just say that perhaps Matt was on a movie kick from “The Simpsons Movie” so he felt that doing the same with another cartoon might work in raising its profile.

Comedy Central proved a good ally. Most other channels would’ve been like “Nah dude, just play the episodes”.  I guess Comedy Central figured that the movies would be better than playing Saturday Night Live repeats from the early 90s once again. 

So that leaves us with the actual episodes. These have been pretty excellent, with a few actually reaching the standards set in the first few seasons when they were on FOX. So it is doubly nice to know that even years later they are able to keep up the quality and that the movies were weak due to their length, not due to a lack of creativity.

“Rebirth”, the first episode, sort of had an in-joke about the show’s cancellation while getting right back into the meat and potatoes of the series. Leela and Fry are involved, and there’s some strange goings-on regarding the entire crew. Dr. Farnsworth steals the show to some extent, thanks to an extra dose of insane that they give him.

Not all succeeded in this way though. In the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela” there isn’t much to laugh at, and Captain Zapp Brannigan can’t even make the episode work. Plus, the end feels very forced and confused, like the writers had spaced out and quickly dashed it off. 

On the other extreme, “Lethal Inspection” rocked. Everything I could’ve wanted from the series came together here. Plus, the focus on mortality worked well and gave the jokes a bit of heart, which was nice from some of the more gag nature of what had been going on (like with the Attack of the Killer App episode, which had that gross and unfunny singing Boil). Some of my favorite Futurama episodes from yore worked in this way so it was a real treat.

Ultimately, the new series does work in a good way. Perhaps there’s a little more of MOM than before, but that’s alright. When you get down to it, the writers genuinely care about the characters. That’s the difference between this and “Family Guy”. Family Guy relies on cut-away gags (parodied by South Park) and cruelty (see Brian getting shot in the kneecaps). There’s little attempt made in that show to allow the audience to sympathize with Peter, Stewie, etc. Futurama brings that to you. Leela, Hermes, Bender, and the rest of the gang are treated with the utmost care. And the reasons that some episodes fail is when the writers forget that and just write cheap jokes (like with Amy and Bender hooking up).

I’m glad it is back. Hopefully they’ll continue the rest of the season using only the best bits of time travel, friendship, and love.

The Mutants are RevoltingThe Mutants are Revolting [HD]Bender's Big Score 

So – So 8.1

So came after the last major Oval release. Being used to Oval’s usual bag of tricks, I didn’t expect anything radically different from his highly-processed noises sculpted into almost music.

Oddly enough, Erika’s vocals and guitar are actually kept in tact for long enough portions. Markus seems to have scaled back his digital chaos, instead using it more as a support to her songs than something to overwhelm. For tracks like “C” it sounds like Markus has overcome the criticism that he can only make sound, not songs. With a breezy guitar and gentle lyrics, it feels like it belongs to another artist. Erika did originally write the thing, so it is technically hers. However, the fact that Markus allowed it to speak for her for the most part is highly unusual for him.

“E” might be the closest we get to the Oval we know and love. This one too stays on the sidelines in terms of sheer volume, allowing fragments of quiet tones make their emotional imprint.

That’s probably the reason I like this album so much. Emotionally, it gives rather than taking like so much of Oval’s work after 94 Diskont did. Sure, this isn’t exactly pop music; there are too many strange arrangements of singing and CD noise to allow that. But it does attempt to bring Oval closer to humanity, to the concerns and thoughts of others. Plus, his defined approach to the source material is heartening. Perhaps he is human after all.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Did Utah Saints try to make rave more accessible for the Mormon community?

Back in the late 80s/early 90s, a magical thing occurred in the UK. The second summer of love came. Pasty English boys and girls became pasty English men and women. Electronic music ruled the airwaves, and even the sun visited this light starved land. Rave followed like sonic milk and honey to those fed mediocre punk rock for too long.

Halfway across the world, a particular group of people weren’t enjoying the fun. Commonly referred to as Mormons, they roast in the hot desert sun. Stores close after 5pm there, and they make the Amish look like fun-loving people. Little of the rave scene reached those people starved for culture. Some wondered when they’d have fun. That’s when Utah Saints came.

As foretold on golden plates, a band would come along. This band would preach to the world the joys of giving up caffeine and producing litters’ worth of children. Joseph Smith knew that this band would come from the UK, since America’s dance music infrastructure remained too weak to handle it, especially in outlying areas outside of Chicago and New York.

Utah Saints consists of Jez Willis and Tim Garbutt. Together they descended on Salt Lake City from a giant zeppelin, set to spread cheer amongst the sad townsfolk. “I just know that something good is going to happen” the speakers blared to the people below. Eventually they convinced the entire state that they should have some sort of statewide dance party. Instead of people being given the requisite drugs, they got their party on by eating white bread and drinking orange juice. For if you give up your ideals then what do you really have. Plus the dance parties ended at sundown. 

One of those dancing in the street ended up doing great things. A well-groomed, articulate young man called Mitt Romney remembered those heroic zeppelin dwelling Englishmen. Once he got to Massachusetts, he looped that song on his IPOD as he signed into law state-wide health care. People adored him for it, although he eventually was accused of “spreading joy” by his own political peers’ years later. Even channeling the good vibrations from early 90s rave via his haircut couldn’t save poor Romney against his ideological foe Rudy Giuliani. Instead, he was reduced to insulting Rudy’s inability to know how many illegal immigrants worked on his vast estate. Rudy curtly replied that his lands were so vast that he couldn’t keep track of the thousands who worked keeping the hedges neatly trimmed. 

Anyway, now rave is dead, but it is important to note how Utah Saints existed exclusively for Utah. No other state got so much attention from the English rave community, not even Idaho. For a brief moment, it felt like Utah might have been able to enjoy the fruits of modern life like birth control. Sadly, that never occurred. Those sprawling suburbs will forever remember that great shining zeppelin in the sky, which let them know that something good is better.

Anders Ilar – Cellular Memories EP 6.1

If I had any advice to give about this EP, it would be the following: skip the first two tracks. Those reek of lame hand-claps and stale pacing. Retro is a big sound right now, but they aren’t retro, they just sound amateurish. Ping sounds on the second track confirm it isn’t used in a particularly novel way.

Skip immediately to “Ulterior Motives” which is very creative. Taking some heavy stabs and re-configuring them is extremely creative. After it has been rearranged, the customary beats come in. Sure, some of those feel a bit overused, but that’s alright. Arrangement-wise, it works perfectly and that’s why it is the highlight of the album.

The end “Ocean Sonata” doesn’t work as well. Essentially, it goes on too long, in some epic song form, but the quality of the tune doesn’t lend itself well. In other words, it gets boring eventually. But it is still better than the first two tracks.

Anders has an idea of what he is doing. But it seems like if he did better editing of his material, perhaps working on avoiding a lot of techno cliques, it would be infinitely better. “Ulterior Motives” and, to a lesser extent “Ocean Sonata” work specifically because of this. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An American Hero: Tony Danza

America gives opportunities to so many people, both here and overseas. Each year millions come to the US to study, learn, raise a family, and contribute to our economy. However successful these people may be, they fail in comparison with the almighty Tony Danza.

                Tony Danza has gone through life without learning English. It amazes me how someone who speaks a dialect foreign to nearly every other human being has been able to get ahead. Not only has he worked as a boxer (where speaking generally isn’t very important) but as an entertainer, a profession which usually requires knowledge of a pre-existing language.

                Much like James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”, Tony speaks in a language that works with and against the English language. Occasionally he is able to be understood, but for the most part the listener only hears grunts between prepositions. Usually the listener has to try and decipher whatever emotion is coming through the grunts. In this way, one is able to at least get a feel for what message Tony is trying to convey. Perhaps this focused Tony’s mind so his television and film work could impress upon the viewer the importance of tone and body language.

                His mind works poorly due to his heavy involvement in boxing as a young adult. Due to his work in that field, he only responds to the name “Tony” hence that being used for his characters’ names in much of his work from “Taxi” to “Who’s the Boss?” In both of these shows, you got the impression of a lovable, sloth-like fellow trying to keep up with his fellow man and miserably failing.

                After the 1980s, apparently acting ability became the in-thing and Tony’s career suffered. Dramatic rises in TV quality in the 1990s forced Tony into a difficult situation, and he mostly earned money through being a human guinea pig for untested pharmaceutical drugs and recycling aluminum cans.

                In the thick of the worst counter-insurgency of the Iraq War, Tony was given his own talk show to rally the troops. This seemed ironic, given that Tony’s greatest ability was not speaking, but the show proceeded. Upon beginning his show, the tide turned in the Iraq war, and while some attributed this success to working with local leaders, others stated it was due to Tony’s unclear but generally well-meaning message which prevented a potential civil war. Even a metal band found inspiration from him, a band called “The Tony Danza Tap Dance Extravaganza”.

                Since Tony gave so much to the country that treated him well America decided to give even more back. Along with providing him a comfortable, upper class lifestyle they created a reality show called “Teach: Tony Danza”. This show documents the struggles others have trying to teach Tony simple tasks like making change for a dollar and how to write his name in script. At time harrowing, it is a raw look into the heavy stupidity that Tony lives each and every day. Yet, despite his obvious idiocy, he remains a good and decent person, and one who has truly achieved the American Dream. God bless you Tony Danza!

No Age – Everything in Between 8.6

No Age
Like all No Age releases, this one grew on me. The immediate difference was how the songs felt fuller, both in terms of recording quality and it terms of more conventional structure.  Add that to the length of the album (almost 40 minutes, a record for them) and the word “maturity” comes to mind.

Yes, they have finally reached the next logical step in their evolution. But simply growing older and a bit wiser doesn’t mean that they’ve given up their energy. Rather, this energy is directed in new and exciting ways. “Valley Hump Crush” combines the joys of old No Age with the new focus. It has the same catchiness but there’s even more heart than before. “I don’t want to go to bed/The Sun’s still shining in my head” gives you some idea of the blissed out California world these two still inhabit. But the ideas are better fleshed out than before. Even the chaotic pace of “Fever Dreaming” can’t disguise the fact that they’ve worked harder on this without losing the energy that made them so likable in the first place.

Initially, I worried about this new approach upon first hearing it. For one, the reverb and effects are gone, making it sound more direct. Muscle like that found on “Life Prowler” allows you to actually respect the fact that they could tear down that wall. Also I wondered whether having so much thought behind the emotion would let it succeed on that visceral level. Thankfully, I was wrong after giving it a few more listens. So give this one a bit more tries than their previous work, it does take some getting used to. But ultimately, it is a very enjoyable work. Even the pacing of the ambient interludes works well, with most of them helping to mellow out the latter half of the album, with the album front-loaded with intensity.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Does Jandek Google himself?

Jandek is a shadowy figure from Texas who has created some of the darkest and most personal outsider music for over 30 years. But what do we really know about Sterling R. Smith, the man behind the music? Besides the fact that he lives in some comfortable part of Houston, there’s really nothing. A phone interview with someone who might have been him mentioned he worked as a machinist and wrote 7 novels, all of which were rejected by a New York publisher and later burned, in true Jandek fashion. 

I’m sure that when Mr. Smith comes home from his well-paying job at the Sterling Smith Corporation (of course, since the company is named after him, he ought to be doing fairly well) he probably plops down in front of a computer. Then he looks for himself on the internet. Never mind the article that stated he doesn’t watch TV or surf the internet, that interview was before he even decided to perform live. Things have obviously changed in his little universe.

When he reads these absurd scenarios about his life, he most likely laughs. Yes, I know that somebody writing such desolate music shouldn’t laugh, but I sort of doubt how revealing his music is about him. Like he told Katy Vine “There’s nothing to get” or how Corwood Industries has stated multiple times that the fans’ (all 8 of them) interpretation of the music is far more interesting than the performer’s intent. All those rejected novels indicate that he is more than capable of creating fictional scenarios. But I doubt they were particularly happy stories.

The fans definitely do have a number of theories as to what is up with him. Some of them have been proven incorrect due to his live performances, but some seem sort of insane:

1.     1.  Jandek was the work of a disturbed individual, and their wealthy father paid to have his crazy son’s work released. So it is basically out of familial love, hence why the records and CDs are sold for nearly nothing. 

2.    2.   Jandek is the work of a disillusioned member of the almost boomer generation, watching the failings of the late 60s. Some of this might be due to the more collaborative efforts of his which include drummers and other singers. Also, in his interview on the radio he talked about how he likes the Velvet Underground.

3.     3.  The work serves as a reminder of the blues, the most depressing of the blues. Rock seems to have forgotten where it came from, resulting in an endlessly self-referencing genre. Perhaps this is a giant project to get more purveyors of rock to pay attention to the genre. It couldn’t hurt for people like Thurston Moore and his ilk. Not sure if this is a good idea, or if rock is now too self-absorbed for it to ever work.

4.      4. Carles, the writer of the popular blog Hipster Runoff, is Jandek. Both live in Texas and are well-known for being vulnerable. 

Honestly, I think the first one has been proven incorrect. Judging from the live performances, he appears to be perfectly rational and aware of what he is doing. So those who considered it an extremely personal venting of his emotions might be correct, but with each additional performance, that appears less unlikely (though still not impossible).

I’m not sure how accurate this may be. Of course he does seem to be from a certain generation that saw a lot of awfulness occur. As I think about this, I do sort of sit in wonder about how politics have been barely referenced in his songs. That’s a bit incredible considering the supposed personal nature of the music, again making me believe that this could just be dedicated performance art.

The blues isn’t as respected as it once was. So if this is his intention, it would fit with my idea that this might be purely creative than anything else. If this was true, it would explain why he sent so many of his records to college radio stations, in an attempt to sort of cultivate interest in this type of music.

Jury says no, but it does interest me how online or artistic identities can differ dramatically from real-life ones.  
My opinion is it is purely a creative outlet with little insight into his life. I know this will come across as heresy in this well-regarded Jandek scene, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having artistic work that doesn’t match your mindset. Usually the simplest answer is the right one. He worked as a machinist and eventually got his way up into white-collar work (hence the Stock and Securities work). After being in the dark for so long, he decided to reveal himself and tour the world a little bit. He is fairly old, so he figured he’d get out and do things before he got too old to enjoy the experience (again, I know joy isn’t an emotion people associate with him, but I think he does have fun doing this). Hell, he certainly doesn’t do it for the money, there isn’t a way to turn his music into a money making machine. Plus, the little tidbits we have about his travels (he’s apparently well-traveled according to even his album covers) show that he is at least aware of what communities his music appeals to. 

The music is deeply strange and highly unusual. It is a mixture of blues, rock, free jazz, and spoken word. Difficult doesn’t even describe it. Avant-Garde is easier work than this. At no point does his voice become pleasant, or the subject material happy (though the 80s material seems more cheerful) and there’s the total lack of melody or development to deal with. AMM, that classical improvisational outfit from the UK, had much easier structures to deal with since there appeared to be little emotion content. Here in Jandek’s world, emotions provide the only bedrock, and that’s some pretty unstable ground. 

Oddly, I seem to enjoy the spoken word the most, since it is the sparsest thing I’ve ever heard. My personal favorite out of spoken word albums would be “Put My Dream on This Planet”. It is one of the most difficult, uncomfortable things I’ve ever heard. If you’ve heard of anything even remotely like this, you’re probably much older and depressed than I.

So yeah, I’m sure he’s more than aware of everything we write about him. I feel like he knows exactly what sort of path he’s following artistically at least. Live free good sir.